Saturday, June 10, 2017

Upstream 10: Kaunas, part 1 (Friday, May 26)

We woke to chilly rain.  But it diminished over the course of the morning, and our hot tea at breakfast was revitalizing.

In this morning's davenning, I was struck by one of the opening blessings: "Praised are You, Eternal One. . . Roka ha-aretz al ha-mayyim--Who founds the earth firm upon the waters."  

These days, we are on the water as much--or more--than the ground.  I love water and rivers, but the experience really does make me appreciate the solid earth.  Every time I get out of the boat after a long stretch of paddling, I experience "sea legs"--a state of wobbly and weak imbalance--for a bit before I re-orient and feel the ground again, firm beneath my feet.  I am grateful for both: the water that sustains and carries us, and the earth, comfortable and steady and solid.


The skies have been grey most of the day but the rain has more or less held off.  We've made good time, and stop for lunch at 1:30 on a sandy island on the outskirts of Kaunas.  Rosa and I like the houses, which are all unique, so eclectic and different from one another: large and small, contemporary and aged, brightly painted and greying wood.  Our next stop will be Kaunas--in Yiddish, Kovno--where, about a mile upstream on the Nemunas, after the confluence with the river we are paddling, the Neris, we will meet our contact, Egidijus, who will pick us up at the appointed take out.


After Vilna, Kovno was the second-biggest Jewish center in Lithuania.  It was also the home of my great-great grandparents, Judel and Feige Rivke Finkelstein.  Though, to be more precise, they lived in a section of town that was, at the time, distinct from Kovno, across the Neris, on its western bank, which we will pass on river left as we come through town.  It is now known as Vilijampole, but back in the day, it was called Slabodka.  In his memoir of growing up there, in a one room hut with a dirt floor, Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein notes: "When a Jew from Slabodka became rich, he moved to Kovno.  When a Jew from Kovno became impoverished, he moved to Slabodka."  

Slabodka was originally founded by Jews from Keidan, where Judel Finkelstein was born.  From the start, it was also home of the most pious Jews in the Kovno area.  It had two renowned yeshivas.  The first was inspired by the founder of the Mussar movement, Yisrael Salanter.  He taught for nine years in the Neviazher Kloiz, a synagogue named for the Nevezis River, which we will be paddling next week, which passes through both Keidan and Kovno before its confluence with the Nemunas.  Later, in 1882, his disciple, Natan Tzvi Finkel founded the Slabodka yeshiva, Knesset Bet Yisrael, which focused on mussar teaching.    A rival yeshiva, rooted in the misnagdic tradition and opposed to the dissemination of Mussar was founded in 1897 and named Knesset Bet Yitzchak, for the renowned chief rabbi of the city, Isaac Elchanan Spektor.  The renowned Soloveichik family also had deep roots in Kovno.  Rabbi Shimon Finkelstein--and likely his brother, my great grandfather, Mendel-- studied with both Spektor and two of Salanter's  most renowned disciples, Rabbis Yitzchak Blazer and Yozel Horowitz.  And he was ordained by Rabbi Judah Meshil HaCohen, of Aleksot, the section of town where we will be staying for the weekend.  

But not everyone in Kovno--or even Slabodka--was pious.  The community was also home to Bundists, Zionists, Communists and all sorts of other Jews.  The Haskallah--Jewish "Enlightenment'--also had a strong presence in town, including the writer Abraham Mapu, who was born and lived much of his life here, and is considered the first Hebrew novelist.  Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, visited the city in 1901 and other famous guests included Moses Montefiore and Marc Chagall.

In 1897, just after my great grandfather left, the Jewish population of Kovno and Slabodka reached 25,448, making up 36% of the general population.  This made the Jewish community a relative majority in this multi-national and multi-lingual city, which was otherwise 25.6% Russian, 22.8% Polish, 6.8% Lithuanian and 4.7% German.  

Alas, nearly the entire population was wiped out by the Germans and their local accomplices, who imprisoned the community in the Kovno Ghetto and then shot them, men, women, and children, into the ditches they had dug in the forest outside of town, in an area known as the Ninth Fort.


The Finkelstein family--Rosa and me--did not make a grand re-entry into our ancestral home.  Our take out spot was about a kilometer north--upstream--on the Nemunas, and after we reached the confluence, we quickly realized the current was too strong to paddle against for any real distance.  So get out and lined the boat along the marshy shoreline, making our way through the muck and mud that lined the banks.  Finally, we had to cross the river to meet Egidijus on river right.  This entailed paddling like mad, struggling against the stream, until we neared the cement wall on the other side and passed under a large bridge.  Finally we spotted Egidijus and threw him a rope, which enabled us to make it upstream with a whole lot of effort, us paddling and him pulling.  At last we made it to the takeout, where we loaded our kayak onto his van and threw our bags and in the back--and he very graciously insisted on driving us to our bed and breakfast, accepting no payment for the time and effort.  


I cannot emphasize enough that this journey is entirely a team effort.  Rosa and I are doing the paddling, but we could not begin to make this trip without the logistical support and tremendous kindness of many others.  Starting, of course, with the amazing Justus Pipiras, who made all of the arrangements.  But also the many contacts who are helping us along the way, like Egedijus.  His assistance, encouragement, and graciousness are a beacon.


Justus dropped us off at our place, arranged through AirBnB, in Aleksotas, the section of town where the rabbi who ordained Shimon Finkelstein once lived.  The accommodations are perfect--a beautiful home with a spectacular garden.  We spread our stuff out to dry, settled into our rooms, had a good dinner and then lit Shabbat candles.  We are so grateful for the comforts of civilization and rest of the Shabbat day!


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